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The Orson Welles Show (1979)
Too Intelligent to be a "Flop"
"It was frankly an attempt to enter the commercial field and earn my living as a talk show host. It was just a flop, that's all, nobody wanted it." This was what Welles said about this unsold pilot for a television talk show. I have come across some obscure unsold pilots in my time as an old tape collector, but I am still reeling from seeing this one and learning that the networks collectively passed on it.
The Orson Welles Show had no shortage of brilliance. Few people on the stage and screen fill the shoes of a host better than he did in this endeavor. Regrettably, I am not too familiar with Welles' work as a director or a performer. I have seen only a few of his movies, and Citizen Kane was not among them (something I still need to remedy). Nevertheless, the man is difficult to dislike for those familiar or unfamiliar with his work. For 1979, his idea for a talk show is a step above his predecessors, combining one part variety show, one part magic act, one part Ripley's Believe It or Not, and one part Inside the Actors Studio. Welles' interview with Burt Reynolds was candid and consisted entirely of questions from the audience. There was an intimacy to it because there was no stage: Reynolds and Welles discussed the trials and tribulations of directing with the audience surrounding them and sitting only a few feet away.
Welles filmed the entire pilot with a single camera. It became obvious through the course of the pilot that several takes were required to deliver what Welles intended. This detracted from the realism in the sketch material, but fortunately it had little effect on the interview segments. It could be jarring at times and clearly was a difficult effort. The Muppet performance suffered the most. It seemed as though none of them wanted to spend a great deal of time between cuts and takes to struggle to make each Muppet's lines and actions come close to what an audience expects to see with the limitation of Welles' camera equipment. The result was a far cry from what a Muppet audience expects to see but somehow more intriguing to watch because it felt like a dress rehearsal for a Muppet show. The personalities of the puppeteers themselves seemed to come through their respective Muppets more than the characters of the Muppets themselves. There were obvious multiple takes to put close-ups on each Muppet to hold the illusion because the puppeteers did not have a custom-built stage to hide them from sight, but they made it clear they were reading from cue cards (as Gonzo struggled to hold up the cards for anyone to see). They got through it, stumbling and ad-libbing on occasion to fill in the holes of the cue card routine. Welles reminded the audience that this was more a demonstration of what goes into producing a professional talk show, and that absence of seriousness showed.
The show took a sharp turn from interview to stage performance as Welles displayed his love of the history and spectacle of stage magic. This is the point of the show that made it seem like production costs might have been more than a network was willing to pay for even a weekly show. Welles showed prerecorded footage of a card trick he performed with Angie Dickinson (which also suffered from the multiple camera cuts), eventually taking the stage with her to perform a suspenseful psychic Russian Roulette trick inspired by the death of early 20th century magician Chung Ling Soo. The performance provided more in its history lesson than its execution, but, again, this was a pilot and not a semi-annual television special.
The Orson Welles Show had virtually no competition for the kind of show it was for 1979. Orson Welles tried to be a jack-of-all-trades, but he was anything but a master of none. I can imagine the sort of challenges it would have presented for Welles and any network that might have taken this show, but it is no less disappointing that no one even gave it a chance. It would be hard to imagine Welles doing one of these shows once a week let alone every weeknight because of the amount of energy that comes off the screen. Welles was a film director, and television was a different entity. Still, Welles showed ample knowledge and respect for the industry itself, and he did not seem to subscribe to the idea that television viewers were on some lower intellectual plane (though it might have insulted the intelligence of a few network executives). The only time the atmosphere was uncomfortable was when someone in the audience asked a loaded question that caused Welles or his guests to hesitate. Some audience members asking the questions seemed to want Welles and his guests to denigrate their peers in Hollywood, or they simply wanted to shine a spotlight on the crowd to proclaim, "I'm a (wannabe) actor, too." Welles and his guests took it in stride.
The personality Welles had was perfect for a variety show, but, sadly, he had a limited window for displaying it. He might have been known more as a director than anything else, but the man knew how to deliver lines. Any information or anecdote he shared always was delivered with his signature enthusiasm, eloquence and dry sense of humor, an on-screen personality comparable to Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock. Welles was well-read and quoted literature often, but he could tell a joke, too. In this reviewer's opinion, he came through on his vision to put something together that would engage and entertain a television audience, but the fact that this obscure gem is all but lost to history seems to prove I am alone.
Steve Coogan + Classic Movies = Pure Comedy
Steve Coogan is a master of character acting, and I would not disagree with any comparisons made between him and the late Peter Sellers. As a writer, he has a cultured background from which to create comedy, and he does so with style in this movie spoof anthology. If you are like me and grew up watching the classic British horror of Hammer Studios, the European spy stories of Sax Rohmer, and the psychological terror tales of the 1970s from the likes of David Cronenberg, then you will be delighted to see all of those film genres and more showcased here. Coogan's tales gives a stunning visual appreciation to their strengths while he pokes fun at their flaws, and he makes multiple references to the old films and their creators that can be a challenge for movie buffs to catch in one viewing, weaving both highbrow humor and lowbrow innuendo together to create something that stands on even footing with Monty Python and Mel Brooks with its high degree of wit. Vampires, voodoo, megalomaniac super-villains, science gone wrong, nightmares, and devil worship all play a part in this series, and the only thing that keeps me from giving it a perfect ten is that it never lost its pace but only lasted six episodes. Even though ten years have passed since its inception, I would look forward with great anticipation to a second series that gives a good-natured ribbing to these great films.
Casey Jones (2011)
Proving That Fans Can Put Hollywood to Shame
Criminals of the lower east side, your days are numbered. If fan films can provide an audience with this much quality, then Hollywood should consider its days equally numbered. Blending both the gritty traditional style of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book with the more playful 1980s animated series, this short fan film finds a fitting medium to tell Casey's origin. Not unlike The Punisher (or even the original comics versions of the Turtles themselves), Casey is a man without mercy in a place where the law has turned its back.
The 1980s animated series made him a farcical Clint Eastwood. The original live movies branded him a neutered Turtle sidekick. The 2003 animated series gave him more edge but still held back. Here, Casey is completely unbridled as the anti-hero he was meant to be. He will make you cheer, but he won't shy away from making you cringe as well.
This short film is loaded with action and pays perhaps the most honorable tribute to the Turtles. It isn't a Turtles story for your kids, but it is the perfect treat for any adult who grew up in the late 80s when the Turtles were at the height of popular culture. The return of Robbie Rist, the original live action voice of Michelangelo, is a rare treat for a fan film. The darker tone of the film makes Michelangelo a better fit than Raphael as Casey's first Turtle encounter, and their exchange reminds me of a classic Drunken Master teaching session.
Superbly edited, exceptionally performed, and visually realistic, this is by far one of the most well-made fan films I have seen, second only perhaps to Batman: Dead End. Casey Jones looks like a big-budget feature without being one, and it delivers more in 35 minutes than most feature films today can muster in 2 and 1/2 hours. If you are a fan of the Turtles... or even a non-fan looking for a little action... then by all means give this film a look if you have the chance.
Poor Classification By the Market Draws the Audience into a Trap of a Deeper Film
Bernard Hirschenson was an artist first and a filmmaker second, and I can say with certainty that he deserves respect for his cinematography and editing skill. I have yet to see the film market categorize Pick-Up properly for what it is: outside the realm of your average drive-in experience. It's been called grind-house and soft-core, but the only description that fits is drive-in. The typical drive-in movie, on its surface, had as much legroom as the Dodge Dart parked in front of it and packed with teenagers, but quite a few drive-in movies dug deeper to defy classification. Pick-Up fits almost every existentialist argument and moral dilemma known to man into a story where essentially nothing happens (in the plot, that is, because your eyes cannot deny there is quite a lot happening). The only conveyed conflict comes after the opening when our stars are stranded in the Everglades. Then things get weird, but how weird is ultimately up to the viewer.
Carol and Maureen hitchhike with Chuck, who is driving a passenger bus converted into a mobile home. Their first glimpse of him is stopping by the side of the road to take a leak, so it seems pretty clear right away that these girls are stunning judges of character. Hey, it's the '70s! Don't be so uptight. A hurricane knocks out a road sign, and a wrong turn finds the bus stuck in the swamp. Carol and Chuck then spend the majority of the time joined at the hips and romping naked in the foliage. I always found something unsettling about this Garden of Eden motif because I am concerned about how many micro bacteria and parasites these performers had to endure in their private parts to make a movie. Watch virtually any Russ Meyer film, where a buxom naked star rolls around a muddy shore littered with debris from the current, and tell me it doesn't send a chill down your spine.
You almost find yourself believing that this is the only real point: good-looking naked people indulging in nature. That's basically what any plot synopsis gives you. That's what Mill Creek Entertainment's Drive-In Cult Classics 32-movie set gave me. That's the synopsis that IMDb gives, but it is drawing you into the trap. Enter Maureen. Vacant-eyed, chanting strange phrases sometimes difficult to distinguish from actual speech, and immersed in tarot cards and astrological signs, Maureen is a quicksand pit of emotional turmoil. While Carol and Chuck slosh in the germ-ridden flora, Maureen is sitting in the bus and staring into space, taking the audience on a mental journey consisting purely of metaphor. She begins this ride by wandering into the swamp and finding a sacrificial stone altar. A woman in a white robe appears, telling Maureen to accept the Scepter of Apollo. Maureen accepts it in more ways than one by writhing naked on the altar for a few minutes. The audience is then subjected to a multitude of images, metaphors, and flashbacks that seek to explain why Maureen is disturbed as well as how Carol and Chuck began their own prospective journeys. Describing these situations would be the spoilers of the film, so, without giving away any details, I'll just say all three of them suffered from the top-tier confusions of any young person being thrust into adulthood: religion, politics, overbearing parents, mistrust and/or betrayal of authority figures, and hormones. How these images are conveyed must be experienced to grant you any real understanding of what might be happening in these young people's lives. Maureen eventually finds herself sinking so deep that she turns to self-mutilation, forcing Chuck to attempt to understand her in coming to her aid. He subtly avoided Maureen as much as possible by spending time with free-spirited Carol. Carol is easy and Chuck is simple until the more complicated Maureen displays a quality of real distress that turns his attention.
It sounds simple, but Pick-Up displays these situations through elaborate editing. At times, the only way to know what is real is that these young people are in the middle of nowhere and waiting for Chuck's boss, a jarring presence on the bus's mobile phone, to try to locate them. Maureen's use of paganism to combat religious symbols might lead one to think the boss is God himself, interrupting to ask questions to which only He knows the answer because the audience is given no glimpse into where His conversation began. We don't know Chuck's relationship with him, and the boss seems to be the only connection to the civilized world as Chuck, Carol and Maureen question their desire to return to that world at all.
What stands out most to me is how much is open to interpretation. You walk in with the basics of an R-rated mid-70s drive-in movie: good-looking people take their clothes off and do things in front of the camera while "peace and love" act as the subliminal message, but then you take a detour into metaphysics and have to look for clues to remind you what is reality. I have seen reviews that claim this film was not made for a sober audience, but the film itself is sobering. I would wager anyone watching this movie on drugs at the time suffered a bit of a freak-out. Yes, some scenes play out like what I am to believe an acid trip is supposed to resemble, but I find it hard to believe anyone under the influence could watch this without having a few walls shattered. Perhaps I read too deeply into the symbolism in this film, but that is part of its beauty. Anyone is welcome to make as much or as little about anything, applying different meanings to each of the symbols the film throws at them. There is little doubt, however, even with the distractions of bare bodies, that anyone can walk away from Pick-Up without wondering what really happened between these three young people in the swamp.
Phil at the Gate (2003)
One of the Many Reasons Sitcoms Fail
Phil Hendrie himself claimed that he was somewhat happy that Phil at the Gate wasn't picked up for NBC. He worked on this show for nearly two years, and throughout that time his ideas and intelligence were challenged by network executives. While Family Guy and other shows go as far as the censors will allow, it was clear from the pilot of this series that Phil was not allowed to do so. Despite a talented cast, the show fell short in many ways but is still worth seeing if you get the opportunity. Having listened to his radio show for five years, I will admit I am biased, but I thought the show was adequate. In Phil Hendrie's world of comedy, however, adequate just doesn't cut it. Phil's humor brings the ignorance of certain aspects of society out in the open where they can be ridiculed as needed. The majority of the ideas he put forth about what his show would be simply did not come to pass, and his disappointment in the whole process was evident long before he got the news that the show wasn't being picked up. The premise of an ex-cop starting a security firm in a gated community was sound. Gated communities are the butt of some of Phil's most prominent jokes on his radio show, which led to Laurie Metcalf's portrayal of Phil's most popular radio character, the "suburban Nazi soccer mom" Bobbie Dooley, and French Stewart's suspicious and super-anti-terrorist character was so realistic that it was scary. Wealthy people who treat their neighborhoods like their own private dictatorships, old people who don't like children, and the trials of raising stepchildren gave this show an edge, but apparently it was too sophisticated for NBC's tastes. Phil changed a lot more than he felt comfortable changing, and the end result was a sitcom that lost out during its initial season to shows like Coupling, most of which were canceled after one season or less (perhaps the worst pilot season for NBC this century). NBC seems to be picking up some strength now, and hopefully the negative impact they had on this series will not repeat itself in the future. Phil's return to NBC this year for Teachers seems a good indication. Dumbing down comedy for a demographic market is a disaster, and Phil at the Gate is one of many examples.
Madame's Place (1982)
Proof That True Comedy Is No Longer Appreciated
A plush mansion, an aged ex-boxer/butler, a nerdy walking day planner, a beautiful IQ-challenged southern belle, and a nosy kid neighbor. This would have been the perfect equation for an 80s sitcom, but Madame's Place took it a step further with its star... a puppet masquerading as a bawdy old movie star with a naughty sense of humor.
Wayland Flowers was the premiere puppet comedian for adults in the late 70s/early 80s and became one of the first victims in a long chain of comedian-turned-sitcom-star. Fortunately his brand of humor was dumbed down only by removing Madame's foul-mouthing nature; many of the show's jokes were naughty but subtle enough. Unfortunately Flowers wasn't given complete control over the course of his show like comedians demand in advance today (for all the good it does most of them). A multitude of writers, a handful of comedian guest stars, and no shortage of scripts centered around the home life and talk show of an old movie star couldn't keep Madame's Place open for more than one season, but its failure is more likely attributed to offering golden age era comedy to a modern age crowd.
Madame's Place covered all of the bases from an abandoned baby on the doorstep to an outrageous fortune teller (played by a much thinner Edie McClurg... quite a striking difference from her typecast characters on "Small Wonder" and "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie"), to almost marrying a con man, to a sleazy tabloid TV producer tarnishing Madame's image for his ratings. It fought valiantly against the has-been mentality with guests like Debbie Reynolds and Foster Brooks, all of whom engaged in their classic routines, but alas, only die-hard Flowers fans kept it going as long as it did. Its greatest crime, however, probably was causing Corey Feldman to hit puberty several years early. His kid neighbor character was almost always on screen drooling over a scantily-clad Judy Landers, but I could think of few other beauties of the 80s more worth the honor. Nevertheless, I was 4 when this show first aired and watched it simply because I was a puppet fanatic. I couldn't appreciate it for its full value until I saw it later.
Despite its flaws with one too many segues to unknown (and often unfunny) comedian guests on Madame's talk show as well as a few too many stories that took more than one episode to pan out while fighting to keep the audience's attention, Madame's Place was more than a few good laughs for a sitcom of its time and went as far as it could with what the censors would allow (which was a lot more than is allowed today). If you can appreciate the nostalgic roots of comedy from the early 20th century, then you are guaranteed to appreciate Madame's Place, and any chance you get to see it for yourself should be taken.
Dr. Alien (1989)
Among the Last of the "Up All Night" Fare
Judy Landers plays a doctor from space who selects a teenager as a guinea pig for her sexual experiments (just don't expect to see her bare anything in any version: her typecast wholesome and innocent nature remains mostly intact for this film, keeping her at least a step above Farrah Fawcett in talent). This leaves the teen with a phallic antenna on top of his head that drives women crazy, leading to many odd and often uninvited sexual encounters with everyone from the cheerleader squad to the school faculty.
In this millennium, we have films like Not Another Teen movie and the direct-to-video American Pie: Band Camp. In the 80s and 90s, teenagers in the throes of puberty had movies like this, which aired on USA's Up All Night several times during the late 80s/early 90s under the title "I Was a Teenage Sex Project." I gave this movie a 4 out of 10 for its place in filmdom, but for movies of its genre it deserves a 7 at the very least. I'd say it was one of the last great T&A movies to make it to the masses, more for Judy Landers than anything, and I put it right up there with Zapped, Once Bitten and a few others. After "Up All Night" went off the air and Ronda Shear and Gilbert Gottfried had to get real jobs, the line between simple eye candy and soft-core porn became so blurred that movies like this are only seen on premium cable after midnight, and T&A movies these days no longer try to be subtle with their humor. This film was produced just as the quality of this genre began to die of asphyxia, and very few made after it are worth seeing (and those of us who remember seeing Dr. Alien when it first came out are just a bit old to be watching 19-year-olds bounce around in the nude). Simply put, this was one of those movies that didn't need too much editing to be enjoyed for a good tease on basic cable, but of course you'd have to hit a local video store to see all the bare skin (That's why these movies were made, folks, so don't shoot the messenger). If you were a teenage boy in late 80s or even a bit younger, you might find this good for a nostalgic cheesy laugh coupled with an anatomy lesson, but if you're a teenage boy now with the same afflictions, then something more recent is probably what you're after (by this time most of the girls are old enough to be your mother anyway).
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988)
From Trash to Treasure: Rich Genius on a Salvation Army Budget
A mad scientist's plot to rule the world hurls an employee (and later a temp worker replacement) into space on a fully furnished satellite where, in the company of quick-witted robot friends, the captive is forced to watch real movies from nearly every genre imaginable that threaten to rob him completely of his sanity. That's all you really need to know to start watching, but it can't begin to scratch the surface of what you will encounter. Beneath the surface is a work of comedic genius that has held a stronger-than-cult following for almost 20 years.
In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 dictionary, you probably can find a picture of Joe Don Baker under the definition of "irony." He is quoted with having threatened physical violence on the creator of MST3K after how they treated him in the film "Mitchell," yet he played a trailer trash dad in "Mars Attacks" around the same time. It's these kinds of relationships between one movie and another, the throwbacks to our culture, and (most) performers' ability to be a good sport that makes MST3K such a brilliant program. It is only in the case of this series that too many writers don't spoil the ambiance; in fact, a large group of writers is essential to capture every flaw and possible remark that can be made about a single movie. If you grew up within the last 50 years, then you are bound to have seen most of the movies featured on MST3K. On the same token, you are bound to get most of the jokes the stars hurl at the screen, but don't be surprised if you catch something new every time.
Sci-fi and film purists have deemed MST3K detrimental to film genres in some arguments, and some viewers who saw the actual movies when they were released or were influenced heavily by a group of films might be taken aback by seeing their favorite movies torn to pieces for the sake of comedy. Nonetheless, MST3K has the ability to grow on virtually everyone who sees it... and has done so. The show is filmed with some of the most dated film technology while the robots and sets were literally sculpted from scraps of junk gotten from Goodwill, but the impact is lasting and any argument you may have over scientific mistakes are immediately addressed in the last line of the catchy theme song. Mexican wrestlers, Italian spies, Japanese giant monsters, 1960s-era juvenile delinquents, mad scientists, educational short films, rugged bikers, and even works of Shakespeare (well just one work but still) to name only a few types of the over-200 films featured in its 10-year run (many of which continue to hold high ranking on IMDb's worst films list), are the primary fodder of this brilliant undertaking, and you are hereby dared not to find the same amusement in every movie you see after experiencing MST3K for yourself and succumbing to its effects.